French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger François Hollande clashed in their only televised debate last night, seen as the conservative incumbent’s last chance to turn the odds of re-election in his favour.
Trailing Hollande in opinion polls by six to 10 points before Sunday’s decisive run-off despite an aggressive campaign and a lurch to the right to appeal to far-right voters, Sarkozy said he wanted the prime-time debate to be a “moment of truth”.
Hollande appeared more confident and relaxed in the opening exchanges, saying he aimed to be “the president of justice”, “the president of revival”, and “the president of unity”.
He said Sarkozy, in office for the last five years, had divided the French people for too long and was using the global economic crisis as an excuse for broken promises. “With you it’s very simple: it’s never your fault,” Hollande said.
Sarkozy, fighting for his political life, repeatedly accused his opponent of lying about economic figures and reeled off reams of statistics in an attempt to unbalance his rival.
“It’s all very nice to talk about uniting people, but it has to be put into practice,” Sarkozy said. “The example I want to follow is Germany and not Spain or Greece.”
The duel was carried live on channels that reach roughly half of France’s 44.5m voters.
They have duelled at a distance for months, with Sarkozy accusing Hollande of being incompetent and a liar, and Hollande branding the incumbent a “failed president” and “a nasty piece of work”.
When they finally met in a television studio, the exchanges were just as barbed.
Sarkozy suffered a setback on Tuesday when far-right leader Marine Le Pen refused to endorse him. She vowed at a Paris rally to cast a blank vote and told her supporters to make their own choice, focusing most of her attacks on Sarkozy.
The issue of how to deal with the anti-immigration crusader and her supporters continues to torment Sarkozy’s UMP party.
Senior party leaders rebuked the defence minister Gerard Longuet for telling an extreme-right weekly that Le Pen could be someone the mainstream right could talk to.
Hollande has rejected Sarkozy’s taunt that he was “chicken” for turning down a challenge to hold two extra debates.
Sarkozy is the most unpopular president to run for re-election and the first in recent history to lose a first-round vote.